What a VISTA is and My Journey to become One of Them !

UG Planning + Urban Design
4 min readMay 12, 2022

Melody Burns, Planning VISTA

About ten years ago, I found myself wishing to go back to school and changing my life’s course. I had spent the last 10 years working in a rural community that I dearly loved, and in a job where I made a difference in the lives of many families. I was comfortable, but a change was coming. It gave me a different prospective. It would eventually come to include diversity, equity, and inclusion. At the time I admit to ignorance on the subject. I didn’t think it affected me. How wrong I was.

I should start at the beginning. My mother called. She said my stepdad was ill. She couldn’t care for him by herself. I reacted. “What was I supposed to do,’ I asked. Quit my job and move five states across the country with no job? Where I didn’t know the area, and worst yet, the community didn’t know me. How would I find a job? She hung up rather than argue. I was angry.

The next day she called back. Again, I answered the phone. My mother said the same thing, “My stepdad was ill.” She couldn’t care for him by herself, but I reacted differently this time. Something strange happened. I heard my grandpa’s voice coming through the phone, but the words were my mothers’. I remembered my friend Mary whom I had taken care of the last two years of her life. She said I would have about 10 years before I would have to take care of someone again. She said, “I should go — live my life, find out who I was, and how I was going to make a difference in the world.”

Mom stopped talking. Grandpa’s voice was gone. Mary’s words hung in my memory. Silence. I took a big breath and said that “I would pack up, quit my job, and tow my car back behind the moving truck. What did I just promise? Why did I do that? Why did I cave? Because it was my mother who asked.

I began to think as I began to pack. It had taken 10 years to unpack from my last move, and everything was finally in its place. What was I going to do? How was I going to pay for it? Where could I work? What if? How could I? Bingo. I remembered VISTA, Volunteer In Service To America. It was my plan B. My what if? If I had the time, if I had the money, it would be a way to give back, and a way to continue to serve my community while I was becoming more familiar with it. It was a win-win, a good thing!

I served as VISTA for 2 years as I worked towards my master’s degree in international affairs at Washington University in St. Louis. After my first rotation as a VISTA in 2015, I went abroad to Madagascar as a student researcher. I then became part of the United Nations RINGO (Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations) group that brought home the Climate Change Agreement in 2015.

I was a part of a team. We built capacity and filled-in gaps. We saw missed opportunities in negotiations and simply filled them in with ideas. As observers we could speak truth to power, and they listened. It was an amazing experience. They absorbed our energy, ideas, and Spirit. The time was right.

I finally graduated in 2016. I had taken one class at a time, was a full-time VISTA, and worked part-time at the Saint Louis Art Museum and the St. Louis Zoo in Forest Park to make it through. I learned a lot about life and service doing it that way.

St. Louis Art Museum

To my keep my non-competitive eligibility, I served as a VISTA Leader at Washburn University.

As a VISTA I have served Missouri and Kansas for 4 years+. My service is ending this August. Are you looking to make a difference in the community? Have you thought about community service? There’s more than one way to serve.

I was once asked by someone standing in a line outside the West Wing of the White House what you can do with VISTA service. I replied, “Anything you want to.” The possibilities are endless. In my case I became part of a team that changed the world. I found my voice during my first VISTA term of service.

I should clarify although I used my educational awards to help earn my education, I was not a VISTA at the United Nations. I was simply a graduate research student acting as an observer who had recently served two terms as a VISTA. And true to forum, I did it my way. A friend is always reminding me too just be myself. I worked within the institutions of power, found my voice in the process, and I most of all — I simply observed. Who knew! How easy was that? How are you going to make a difference? What’s your passion? Step up and fill my shoes . . . think beyond just making money — make a difference in the community! Be a VISTA!


AmeriCorps VISTA Program is Now Hiring — Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City (wycokck.org)

Washburn VISTA Fellows

COP21 Delegation | Following the Climate Negotiations | Washington University in St. Louis (wustl.edu)